January 16, 2020 • Strength & Conditioning

Quality of Movement: Strength coaches placing more emphasis on mobility

athlete training
Photos: Hewitt Tomlin

Breathing, movement and quality of life are essential to the human experience. From salespeople to construction workers, movement is an essential part of any job — but for athletes, movement quality and strength are the primary focus of their professional career.

Despite living in an age where social media is heavily scrutinized and flashy numbers translate to likes and followers, there is a shift happening in the professional and amateur sports worlds — a shift that focuses less on how much a player can lift, and more so on the quality of movement in the exercises taking place.

The shift

Hewitt Tomlin, co-founder of strength and conditioning software TeambuilDR, has worked with coaching staffs from high schools all the way up to professional organizations, with more than 2,000 clients around the world. In working with these staffs and players, Tomlin said he’s seeing a shift in the approach to strength and conditioning, and the measures coaches and trainers are taking to accommodate it.

“It’s the whole metaphor of putting the cart before the horse. … The movement of the horse dictates the cart that it can pull.”

Vernon Griffith

“Numbers don’t really tell you anything if it’s a bad rep — at the high school and college level, strength is so relative, it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Tomlin said of the shift in focus within locker rooms. “Quality of movement is much more measurable. By putting less effort into recording pure strength numbers, they’re able to measure minor improvements in the technique of the athlete.”

Understanding the shift is quite simple — instead of coaches and training staffs focusing on tracking hard numbers, max strength tests, and using leaderboards
to motivate and appeal to the competitive side of the athletes, they are instead choosing to focus on movement. By focusing on movements within these techniques, they are creating quality reps over quantity of reps, and they’re creating positive habits within their athletes.

“Training athletes, these staffs have a limited window of time,” Tomlin said. “They are choosing protocols or movements that maximize improvements, while also maximizing injury prevention in the process. It’s both a performance thing and an injury prevention thing. … But quality of movement can really translate over to the field or the court.”

Mobility 101

Known as the “mobility maker,” Dana Santas is a mobility, breathing and mind-body coach for more than 45 professional sports teams and leagues, including the WWE, and a health and wellness expert for CNN. Through more than two decades working with professional teams, coaching staffs and athletes, Santas believes a return to the basics is essential when it comes to injury prevention and well-being.

According to a study done by researchers at the University of Southern California, MLB players on the disabled list have combined for more than $7 billion in lost wages since 2003. While many perceive MLB to have an “injury problem,” Santas believes a decades-old system known as the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) can be a great application to MLB’s farm system.

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Quite simply, the FMS focuses on evaluating seven fundamental movement patterns in individuals with no current pain complaints or musculoskeletal injuries. These seven movements include: deep squat, hurdle step, inline lunge, shoulder mobility, active straight-leg raise, trunk stability push-ups and rotary stability. In team settings, Santas said the FMS provides training staffs better insight on their players across the board, helping the team improve.

“(FMS) is a great way to run large groups of players through a system and see where they stand on these major, fundamental movement patterns,” Santas said. “Then we can work with them and create programs for them based on these numbers, and then we can re-test again to be able to see where they stand and how they’ve improved.”

And when it comes to focusing more on fundamental movements, Santas believes the key to maximizing a player’s potential is to first focus on optimizing the fundamentals that go into any sport, not just that player’s specific sport.

“I think we’re starting to get away from everything being so sports-specific and understanding that human movement is human movement,” Santas said. “If we optimize human movement, if we optimize these patterns … We’re going to get a better athlete. But we have to make sure the fundamental movements are intact.”

Building longevity

Despite years of medical and technological advances in equipment, the average career span for a player in America’s three most popular professional leagues is less than a decade. The average career of an MLB player, according to a study done by the University of Colorado, weighs in the longest at 5.6 years. MLB is followed by the NBA (4.8 years) and the NFL (3.3 years).

Vernon Griffith, co-owner and head strength and conditioning coach of Virginia High Performance, has assisted more than 40 athletes in receiving athletic scholarships to Division I schools. When it comes to focusing on the fundamentals of a player’s movements, Griffith believes that not only is it helping the player get better, but it’s also helping strengthen that player’s potential career longevity.

   » ALSO SEE: Encouraging females to embrace strength training

“Every philosophy is going to depend on the situation and the circumstances,” Griffith said. “But obviously, when it comes to the long-term goal of athletic development and health of the athlete, and for the long-term health and longevity of themselves as people, movement quality should take priority.”

Griffith said that while there’s a shift toward movement over numbers, it shouldn’t be mistaken as one replacing the other — rather, treating one as the first step before moving on to the second.

“It’s the whole metaphor of putting the cart before the horse. … The movement of the horse dictates the cart that it can pull,” Griffith said. “Whatever it is, the movement should always be the first focus, because we’re training athletes that play sports, not weightlifters. Movement being expressed appropriately should always take priority before we try to load it.”

Taking accountability

As coaching and training staffs continue to make this subtle shift in programs and organizations across the country, there’s one element that seems to be consistent — accountability and collaboration.

“I think there’s more of an ownership of the profession. … There’s definitely now an abundance of education and information out there, so the excuse of ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I couldn’t find it’ isn’t an excuse anymore,” Griffith said of the shift. “Coaches are more empowered now to step up and say that movement quality is more important than actual numbers.”

It’s the collaboration between strength and conditioning coaches and training staffs, Santas said, that she sees as more beneficial in today’s age of movement training.

“I see a lot more collaboration across the board,” she said. “There are a lot more industry events where you’re seeing strength coaches from all different sports collaborating and sharing information on how they measure their athletes.”

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